Why? Because it’s a lens through which we can see the complex. By contrast, the simplistic is a shallow cliche that empties the ordinary of its mystery and fills it with banality. Mr. Justice Holmes said, “the only simplicity for which I would give a straw is that which is on the other side of the complex — not that which never has divined it.” He is acknowledging exactly what Emerson had pointed out: “The highest simplicity is produced by the highest complexity.”
How so? Well, consider this simple equation: E = mc2 . There are only three elements to this equation — energy, matter, & the speed of light — couldn’t be more simple, couldn’t be more complex. The apparent simplicity belies its complexity. At the most basic level it says that matter and energy are interchangeable. So, if I were to say that sunshine and walnuts are different forms of the same thing you might accuse me of “Zen speak.” And yet, through this simple lens it becomes possible to see the complex mystery in these ordinary things that otherwise sounds absurd.
Art, at its best, can achieve the same thing. That is, through the lens of a simple form or composition what appears to be ordinary and easily recognizable can open complex depths at the horizon of our experience. What we see invites us to view more than we know. Seeing transcends saying. Emerson put it this way, “A beauty not explicable is dearer than a beauty which we can see to the end of.”
The accessibility simplicity allows is both its greatest strength and its biggest liability. On the one hand simplicity means there’s not a lot of clutter, needless embellishment or decoration to overcome in order to see what’s there. Simplicity creates directness and an unadorned immediacy that allows the viewer in. Once inside there’s actually something to see. Interiority gives the work presence…in Emerson’s words, “even if we can’t see to the end of it.”
On the other hand, simplistic work is accessible too. So accessible that it may be idiotically one dimensional, spiritually vacuous, and perceptually banal — a waste of time when you find not a lens but a trinket, an overgrown bauble, or shameless pretense. Too often this is the art of the factory whose principal appeal is in its production, promotion, and the promise that you don’t have to think. To use the cliche, it is what it is: as easy to get as it is easy to forget. Nothing about it abides.
Remember E = mc2 ? …what makes that simple formula work is physics. Without a fundamental understanding of physics there are just letters on a page. Similarly, when it comes to art … without knowing how to see, learning to peer into the lens of a simple image to explore it intuitively, imaginatively, or (better) with visual intelligence, there are just marks on a medium. And this is the problem: because simplicity that has divined the complex is unpretentious it risks the appearance of being arcane or merely simplistic to the viewer — even when it’s not so simple.